Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister (なぜ君は総理大臣になれないのか, Arata Oshima, 2020)

When Shinzo Abe stepped down in September 2020 citing a recurrence of the chronic illness which had caused him to resign from the same position in 2007 he did so as Japan’s longest serving prime minster having held the post since 2012. The centre-right Liberal Democratic Party has rarely been out of power since its foundation in 1955 though the opposition Democratic Party of Japan did achieve a minor breakthrough in the 2009 election only to lose out again in 2012, its reputation tarnished by a perception that it had not done enough during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami crisis. 

This is the background which informs Arata Oshima’s probing documentary Why You Can’t Be Prime Minster (なぜ君は総理大臣になれないのか, Naze Kimi wa Soridaijin ni Narenai no ka) which follows idealistic politician Junya Ogawa over 17 years from his beginnings as a 32-year-old former bureaucrat standing on a platform of integrity in politics, to a no less idealistic yet perhaps weary middle-aged man now sitting as an “independent” representative. Oshima perhaps partly answers the central question in a lengthy series of opening titles attempting to explain Japan’s rather complicated electoral system which operates both first past the post and proportional representation components. Although mitigated by the additional proportional representation list seats, just as in the UK Japan’s political system remains biased towards the centre-right by virtue of the fact that the leftwing vote is split between a number of different parties. As Oshima also points out, Ogawa’s rival for a first past the post seat is a dynastic candidate whose family is prominent in the local area. 

The other problem, if you want to call it that, is Ogawa’s essential personality and (near) unshakeable idealism. He stands on a platform of integrity in politics in which politicians should be accountable to the people they serve believing that the government has become overly complacent and forgotten about the lives of everyday citizens, the Abe regime famously focussing on their key concerns such as constitutional reform and the military. As such he watches as his more ruthless colleagues surge ahead of him, local rival Tamaki always managing to secure a first past the post seat by playing the political game while he scrapes through on the reserve list. Yet later he makes a fatal mistake, allowing himself to be persuaded to join Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope after the proposed merger with the DP during the 2017 election. Current governor of Tokyo, Koike is a prominent figure on the conservative scene and member of the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi. It’s not surprising that many of Ogawa’s supporters felt disappointed and betrayed on his decision to follow his mentor Maehara, on the right of the DP, and join the new party which could not credibly claim to reflect the values he’d hitherto espoused while even those accepting his logic that he was simply lending his voice to a unified anti-Abe coalition were put off by Koike’s duplicity in immediately walking back on earlier promises by announcing she would not accept all DP members into the Party of Hope.

“Your face is pretty but your heart is black” is just one of the many comments he receives from disappointed voters while out canvassing, another actively distancing herself from him before angrily remarking that he should have joined the CDP, a rival leftwing party set up by a former DP member Edano which promised to accept anyone who wanted to join. Yet the problem might not be so much the party as Ogawa’s inner conflict, wrestling with himself that he should have stood as an independent even if acknowledging he would have had a much harder time campaigning with no party backing him. His decision obviously conflicts with his pledge of integrity, a broken promise it will prove extremely hard to overcome while his secondary battle is and always will be legacy of the DP’s failure in government leaving many to assume only the LDP is qualified to govern. Following the party’s electoral defeat he does indeed sit as an independent but obviously acknowledges that he has far less influence even than he had as a less powerful list seat representative. 

Ogawa himself attributes his inability to become prime minster by an arbitrary date he’d thrown out after the 2009 opposition win engendered a false sense of hope for long lasting political change to his lack of personal ambition unwilling to do whatever it takes to climb the ladder, preferring to pursue his political goals ahead of his own position. He describes himself as an “otaku of making Japan a better place” and brands himself a centrist while advocating for socialist policies such as a welfare state modelled on that seen in Scandinavia. His parents who along with his wife and children are very much involved in his campaigning wonder if he’s too “pure” for politics, that his inability to compromise is the reason he can’t gain a foothold in the political establishment yet he refuses to give up, later telling Oshima in an otherwise unnecessary Covid-themed coda that if he didn’t think he could be PM he’d stand down right away. Politics needs men like Ogawa, Oshima seems to say, but the electorate isn’t so sure.


Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Arata Oshima, 2016)

169827_01Sion Sono has acquired something of a reputation for controversy. His frequent denouncements of his nation’s cinema in which he sets himself up as a kind of “anti-Ozu” perhaps place him in line with the great 1960s iconoclast Nagisa Oshima who also proclaimed that his distaste for Japanese cinema extended to “absolutely all of it”. Funnily enough, The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Sono Sion to Iu Ikimono) – a documentary exploring the director’s work, is helmed by Oshima’s son, Arata, though he is at pains to show a different side to the artist known as Sion Sono, keying in to the various aways his art reflects his life and vice versa.

Shot during 2015, the documentary follows the twin processes of the production of The Whispering Star (one of five films Sono would release that year), and a landmark art exhibition which led straight back to the director’s origins as an avant-garde street protestor with the performance art collective “Tokyo Gagaga”. These joint concerns perhaps highlight a minor conflict in Sono’s working life as he reveals during a casual conversation in referencing the “indecent” work that had been mostly occupying his time over the previous year. Expressing both fear and gratitude for finally gaining the opportunity to work a more personal project (the script for The Whispering Star had been written almost 20 years previously), Sono jokes that he’ll finally be getting “clean” only to immediately relapse by making The Virgin Psychics – the big screen adaptation of a sci-fi TV series he had also directed which largely consisted of lewd juvenile humour.

To rewind slightly, Sion Sono had been making films for almost 20 years before getting mainstream festival attention in the early 2000s with Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. His profile was further enhanced by the international success of serial killer thriller Cold Fish and the Venice recognition of Himizu even if it’s the 4-hour epic and sleeper cult hit Love Exposure which has become synonymous with his name for many Western viewers. In the opening to camera interview, Sono is asked about his “controversial” image and overseas success to which he laments that Japanese audiences are wary of anything unconventional and particularly allergic to the “wacky Japan” tag that often dogs attempts to sell Japanese media overseas. Unorthodox views or ways of working are unwelcome, as are those who live in unorthodox ways.

Perhaps for these reasons, 2015 saw Sono diving headfirst into the populist with mixed results. Avowing at a press conference that he believes in “quantity over quality”, Sono commits himself to simply making films hoping some of them might turn out OK. Thus his more straightforwardly commercial projects, Shinjuku Swan for example, are often filled with unconventional ideas but perhaps lack the sense of attack found in his more potent work, covering a lack of substance with intentional boldness. The Whispering Star, as we see, brings him full circle. Picking up the Tarkovskian influences seen in one of his most impressive early features – the sadly neglected The Room, the minimalist sci-fi drama also encompasses his compassion for the people of Fukushima whose ongoing strife has become a recurrent concern from the ruined landscapes of Himizu to the more directly political Land of Hope.

It’s this essential sense of compassion which Oshima’s documentary seems keenest to capture. Through in person interviews with some of Sono’s frequent collaborators including Himizu’s Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido who characterise the director as an eccentric uncle, and his actress wife Megumi Kagurazaka (the lead in Whispering Star) who breaks down in tears remembering the sometimes difficult days of their earlier collaborations, Sono’s art emerges less as an attack on a conservative society than an exercise in melancholy sarcasm that, at heart, believes the world can be better than it is. A friend of his puts this quality best when she (part correcting herself for triteness) states that despite his sometimes controversial approach, she believes he just wants everyone to be happy and is attempting to transcend his own ideas in order to cut through to something new.

Then again perhaps Sono puts this best himself in accidentally citing a life philosophy. Art is not about good and bad; life is not about good and bad. “Paint! Express! Live!” – what better encapsulation of an artist’s credo could there be?


Released by Third Window Films as part of a double feature pack with The Whispering Star.

International trailer (English subtitles)